Video of the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow by Audubon magazine.
by Scott Anger - Lost Bird Project
In an effort to prevent the extinction of the Florida grasshopper sparrow, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other partners are establishing a captive breeding program for the species. Researchers and biologists believe that if current population trends for the bird continue the species could go extinct in three to five years.
“Captive breeding is labor intensive and challenging. It is generally done as a last resort and there are no guarantees. But we have to try,” said Larry Williams, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “This is an emergency and the situation is dire.”
Researchers believe less than 200 of the songbirds remain in the wild. The species is named for its call, which is a quiet buzz that sounds much like a grasshopper. Males sing only during the nesting season.
The Florida grasshopper sparrow is a non-migratory subspecies with a historic range limited to the prairie region of south-central Florida. Over 80 percent of the bird’s habitat has been lost in recent decades with much of the remaining prairie degraded by fire suppression and encroachment by trees and shrubs.
Audubon Magazine, in a cover story written by Ted Williams in the March/April issue, calls the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow “the most endangered bird in the continental United States.” Williams writes about the bird’s remaining habitat in Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park.
This region of Florida has experienced two notable extinctions over the last century. Central Florida used to be home to large flocks of colorful Carolina Parakeets that inhabited forests and swamps. The feather trade in the 1800s, along with substantial changes in the birds habitat, led to its decline. The last Carolina Parakeet died on February 21, 1918 in the Cincinnati Zoo. Artist Todd McGrain’s bronze memorial to the Carolina Parakeet stands near the headquarters of Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park.
The Dusky seaside sparrow was a non-migratory songbird common in the marshes of southern Florida. As the marshes were drained to facilitate population growth and highway construction, the population started to decline. On June 17, 1987, the last dusky seaside sparrow died at the nature preserve in the Walt Disney World Resort.
The captive breeding program will consist of trained volunteers and staff from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and the Department of Environmental Protection going into the field during April, May and June at specified locations looking for eggs in nests. When and if eggs are found, some of them will be collected and taken to the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation in Loxahatchee, Fla. There, they will be placed in incubators, where the hope is hatchlings will emerge in 11-13 days, after which around-the-clock care will be provided to facilitate their survival. Ultimately, the hatchlings will be kept in captivity in the hopes that they will mate and breed.
“Captive breeding has recently become a crucial component in the comprehensive recovery strategy for this endemic subspecies,” said Dr. Paul Reillo, Director of the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation. “Sadly, the Florida grasshopper sparrow is facing long odds, with or without a captive-breeding program. But to us, the conservation directive is clear and the time is now-- this little bird deserves every effort.”
Here are links to more information and organizations:
Friends of Kissimmee Prairie Preserve, Inc.